Bike Sharing as Part of Mobility as a Service

Traffic engineers know that only mass transit systems can efficiently provide the traffic density needed to serve mega cities, well illustrated in an image from downtown Seattle comparing the space needed for cars vs. buses vs. bikes. But mass transit bus stops or train stations might not be close enough to the commuter’s final destination leaving the first and last mile not supported. This could keep commuters from using mass transit. Bicycling can fill this gap and complement mass transit in serving the first and last mile in the Mobility as a Service orchestra: assuming physical ability and no large luggage, you take a bike to get to the train station close to where you live, take a train to the city center and drive the last mile to the office with a bike again. No unpredictable waiting time and no stress in traffic jams or looking for an expensive free parking space and instead some minutes of healthy workout.

But would this work everywhere? Probably not. At least not short term. For example, in the US only about 1% of all journeys are made on a bike whereas in Copenhagen about 50% of all citizens commute by bike. Among reasons like the anticipated loss of prestige in some countries for not driving a car, most important seems to be bike safety via a well-developed bike infrastructure and motorized drivers being used to cyclists. Weather seems to play a rather minor role as winter cyclists in Canada or Finland can prove.

bike sharing for the first and last-mile

Station-Based vs. Free-Floating Bike Sharing

In pre-GPS and smart phone times, free-floating or station-less bike sharing was simply not an option as bikes could not be localized without stations. With the raise of smart phones and GPS, this has changed and opens up new options. Technically there is no more need to have stations to locate bikes. The reasons why some bike sharing companies still prefer fixed stations are threefold:

  • Most stations allow to safely lock bikes and so reduce the risk of bike theft.
  • The mandatory use of bike sharing stations force users to bring back the bikes to these stations and so significantly reduce the effort to collect bikes all over the city and redistribute them to locations with high demand. This significantly reduces the costs but to the disadvantage of the customer who then still has a way to go from the next bike sharing station to their final destination and vice versa.
  • The use of stations could also avoid bikes being scattered all over the place in an uncontrolled manner clogging sidewalks leading to bike chaos in some Chinese cities. Therefore it is often the preferred option of the municipalities.

On the other hand building and maintaining these physical stations is high effort as well unless so called “virtual stations” are used, which are dedicated areas either marked as geo-fences or with a fixed bike marking the “station”.

Having now bike sharing schemes with different and hybrid approaches competing against each other, I am curious which one will win the race. If I would have to bet, I would bet on free-floating to win due to higher customer orientation.

What Bike to Ride?

As a bike enthusiast of course I tend to use one of my own bikes. But considering the clogged commuter trains, there are more options to be considered:

  1. Take your own bike on the train, which might not be possible or expensive for buses and some trains. The use of a folding bike or folding scooter might be an option but would also leave you with the limited capabilities of these rather expensive vehicles and the need to store or lock them safely.
  2. Have your own bikes at both stations. In most cities where bike theft is a problem, this would require what the Dutch call a “Stationsfiets” – a fully functioning bike but too old and too ugly to be at risk of getting stolen at the train station.
  3. Use bike sharing schemes at home and at work. This is the most convenient and hassle-free option from a customer point of view. But it requires a free-floating system or a very high density of stations both nearby work and home to be efficient.

I personally live outside the operating area of all Berlin bike sharing providers. So I use a hybrid approach with my own Stationsfiets for the first mile from my home to the train station, then take the commuter train to the city center, where I work. There I usually take one of the rental bikes close to the train station and use them for the last mile. After work it goes the other way around. Given the well-developed public transport in Berlin, this commute usually takes me less time than it would take me by car, leads to much lower costs, CO2 emissions and leaves time to read a book or check my emails on the train.

First Impressions Comparing Major Bike Sharing Providers

After Mobike launched in Berlin this week, I had the chance to test all major bike sharing schemes. According to the Berlin senate, even more bike sharers have announced their interest to pilot their services there soon. Again Berlin seems to become even more of a test ground for new mobility as Berlin is known to support smart and green mobility.

Here are some first impressions from a user perspective. They are my purely subjective impressions from a few rides and neither representative nor complete. I consciously left out classic local bike rental schemes who mainly offer bikes for one or half a day to tourists. Given the high competition in the bike sharing market, I expect the bike sharing schemes to develop rapidly and hope that this article could help them to continuously improve and so help bike sharing to become a vital part of smart, inner-city mobility.

Call-a-Bike / Lidl Bike

The Deutsche Bahn-owned bike sharing pioneer Call-a-Bike provides rental bikes since 1998. In Berlin they operate branded by the discounter Lidl as Lidl Bikes. With their long experience it is no surprise that the system works very well. The app is fast and reliable and the bikes are heavy duty with a 7 gear shift and very easy to ride.  I have even seen two triathletes performing a mid-distance triathlon with a 90 km bike track on Call-a-Bikes some years ago. Chapeau! Call-a-bike now has about 3,500 bikes deployed in Berlin in a hybrid free-floating and virtual station approach.

Nextbike / Deezer

Also already an “old hand” in the market is the Leipzig-based Nextbike, which operates since 2004 and provides tailored bike sharing solutions to municipalities around the world. Nextbike has become the official Berlin bike sharing scheme since 2016 and is building up their stations with a plan to deploy 5,000 bikes by end of 2018. In Berlin they are cooperating and co-branded with the streaming service Deezer. Also Nextbike uses a hybrid approach at least while building up their stations.

The Nextbikes feel similar robust and convenient as a Call-a-Bike. The three gear shift does its job. One benefit the Nextbikes have compared with all other bike sharing schemes tested is the card reader integrated the bicycle rack. This allows to rent the bike via RFID using Berlin’s VBB public transport ticket card. An integration into the public transport pricing scheme is planned which would be an important step towards a proper Mobility as a Service integration. The on-board terminal as well as the app have a good usability but tend to be much slower compared to Call-a-Bike and the app tends to freeze. A software update might solve this.

Donkey Republic

The Copenhagen-based bike sharing scheme Donkey Republic has started in 2015 as a crowd-funded, private peer to peer bike sharing system, where everybody could rent out their bikes using Donkey’s Bluetooth-enabled, electronic lock. It seems that Donkey Republic is about to abandon their P2P business model in favor of a station-based system only operated by one larger local bicycle dealers in the major cities. This would mean that their former crowdfunding backers are left behind with useless locks as they no longer can rent out their bikes to the public. Respective inquiries to Donkey led to contradicting responses or remained unanswered so far and it is unclear yet where it will end.

Other than the bikes from the two before-mentioned providers, the orange Donkey Bikes look like regular bikes you can buy in a shop. Most of them are equipped with a shift gear and easy to ride. The main difference to all other bike schemes mentioned in this article is the lack of GPS localization capabilities. The Donkey locks can be unlocked via Bluetooth but they are not as “smart” as they cannot show the bike’s location. Therefore Donkey Bikes depend on known, fixed stations and need to be locked onto a fixed object there. Donkey Republic operates mainly with local providers who own and maintain the bikes. Between the stations of one of these providers, users are often allowed to pick the bike at one station and drop it at another station. Nevertheless it requires to know where the stations are, which limits the user’s flexibility.

oBike

The 2017 founded Shanghai-based bike sharing provider oBike was the first Asian bike sharer to challenge the local bike sharing providers and deployed just 344 bikes for a pilot in two Berlin districts in November 2017. It is the first bikes sharing scheme deployed in Berlin designed to be free-floating.

My first impression of the oBikes was that they are very small compared to the three before-mentioned provider’s bikes and probably build for the Asian market. The lack of a gear leads to a very limited variation in speed and gives the feeling of not moving forward. The splash-guards have a rather homeopathic size but I haven’t had a chance to test if it is sufficient. Assuming that this is just a pilot, i assume oBike will deploy larger bikes suitable for average European customers later. Otherwise my personal preference would clearly to use one of the before-mentioned bikes, regardless of a little lower price.

Mobike

The 2015 founded and Beijing-based Mobike hit the street of Berlin a few days after oBike. They are one of the two big players globally surpassing the $1 billion valuation mark. Mobike has investors like Tencent in their back which allows them to do bold steps.

Like with oBikes, Mobikes small frame and cranks in combination with limited saddle height and the lack of gears makes the currently deployed model likely to be too small for the European market. Also the splash-guards have the same small size as the oBike’s ones. Due to the small size and a lack of gearing, for me personally the current Mobikes also would not be an option for commute as I don’t want to be taken over by elderly ladies with their Rollators 😉

Mobike and Call-a-Bike (Lidle Bike)
A Mobike next to a Lidl-branded Call-a-Bike indicating the difference in size.

The app is fast strait forward and opens the lock as soon as the QR code got scanned. A very nice app feature is the option to reserve a bike up to 15 minutes. Just the scaling of the map required to use the gestures outside of the screen center. One aspect which struck me was Mobikes point system – and the associated pricing: users start with 100 points and receive additional points for proper usage but loose points for breaking rules. If 80 points or less are reached, the price per 30 min becomes 10 to 100 times higher, depending if you look at their website FAQ “10€ pro 30 Minuten” or app FAQ “100 € pro 30 Minuten”. I’m confident Mobike will soon overcome these teething problems. Till then I prefer the website policy 😉

Update (April 10, 2018)

The new bike version has arrived: the larger frame is now suitable for European customers. Still no shift gear and not as comfy as a Nextbike or Call-a-Bike but the bikes can now definitely be used for the last mile, which was not the case before. And I have heard rumors that Mobike might also test Pedelecs soon.

ofo

Founded in 2014 ofo is the second unicorn on the scene and also based in Beijing. Backed by Alibaba and the world’s largest ride hailing company Didi Chuxing, ofo also has the means to make big steps globally.

Although ofo has not officially launched in Berlin yet, I had the chance to test one of their bikes upfront. Like the bikes of the two other Asian bike sharing providers, the size of the bike seems to be tailored to Asian needs and might not fit well to the needs of many European customers. In contrast to oBikes and Mobikes, ofo bikes are equipped with full splash-guards and gearing. Ofo’s main benefit compared to oBike and Mobike is their gearing which allows to ride significantly faster than with the other Asian bikes.  For me personally this distinguishes the ofo bikes currently as the only Asian bikes on the scene to be considered as an alternative to the local players. The app still needs to be tested after the official launch.


ofo bikes waiting to get deployed in Berlin

Update in May 2018:
ofo has officially arrived in Berlin. The bikes are just slightly different to the UK ones shown earlier – and still feel a bit too small. But with the 3 shift gear it is o.k. for the first and last mile and comparable to the new mobikes.

What is Missing for a MaaS Integration?

From a user perspective just a few things are important to me:

  1. Availability of bikes, which means that the are either at every corner of a street – or visible in the main apps, i.e. Google Maps and the local public transport provider’s app. To cover all commuter rides, the bikes would also need to be made available outside o the city center. Currently all five providers compete in the city center but none allows users to use their service in the outskirts where the majority of the commuters live.
  2. Pricing and integration into the public transport ticketing and low to no fares for the first 30 min. A free first 30 min seems to make a huge difference in acceptance of bike sharing schemes. In cities where the first 30 min are for free, the utilization of bike is somewhere between 6 and 10 rides per bike and day, where in Berlin the utilization is about just 1 ride per bike and day. If the city’s officials want bike sharing to be successful, this seems to be the main lever they need to steer.

None of the providers fulfill these criteria in Berlin yet. So there is work left to be done.

 

Redistribution and Maintenance

While some bike share providers prefer to maintain and distribute their bikes with their own staff, others contract external service companies like LiveCyle or the rental car service company ARWE. As all bike sharing companies face the same challenges with the need to redistribute/reallocate and maintain their bicycles, joining forces for these tasks could leverage economies of scale. But according to one of the local managers, this is unlikely to happen due to the high competition in the market. The city’s officials could make this a requirement to avoid five different service fleets operating in parallel.

 

One of the ofo managers I talked to mentioned that they allow users to take their bikes outside of their area of operation in case the user brings back the bike in within a certain time frame. Policies like that would allow commuters who live outside the city centers to make use of bike sharing schemes. It would allow bike sharing providers to take a bigger chunk of the cake and create further revenue. In addition incentives to “bring back” bikes from outside the area of operation might help to reduce the costs to collect them with own resources.

Vandalism and Bike Theft

Whereas vandalism seems to plateau on a certain level and remain as a calculable risk after the start of a new bike rental scheme, bike theft instead can be a serious threat to the business model of bike sharing providers. Bike theft already caused the bankruptcy of the Chinese bike sharing provider Wukong Bicylcles after 90% of their bikes got stolen within just six months of operation. Also the #3 on the global market, BlueGoGo seems to struggle.

A reasonable protection against bike theft seems to be a unique bike design in combination with GPS location tracking and a proper user identification. Locking the bikes onto stations or fixed objects would require a sufficient number of these objects and discipline of the users as it would be less convenient. So none of the Asian providers even have locks allowing this. Only Donkey Republic and Nextbike have locks which allow it.


A stolen Nextbike equipped with a chain lock and the branding removed.


The same stolen bike a few weeks later, camouflaged with paint and extended with a bicycle basket. Due to the unique design it can still be recognized as a Nextbike.


Mobikes might be best protected against bike theft. The unique and eye-catching bike design and the proprietary parts they use, make these bikes useless for concealers on the black market. Even if stolen for private use, they cannot be serviced as there will be no supply of spare parts.

Bottom Line

The next year will show which concepts work out best in Berlin and which company is able to learn quickest. But this will only work if the municipality and the transportation authority also do their homework and get into gears in order to make bike sharing an integral part of public transport and Mobility as a Service.  We are looking forward to it.

 

Update (April 9, 2018)

Good news on the Berlin bike sharing market:

Mobike

According to a well-informed source, Mobike Germany is about to add a larger bike model to the current and too small models. Then this service might be worth another look.

Byke

The German bike sharing company Byke has started their Berlin operation already some months ago. In contrast to their Asian competition are the Bykes big enough for average Europeans. The bikes are equipped with a 3 shift gear, are easy to ride and left a good impression. The app also worked flawless and was easy to use. The first ride is for free and just requires a phone number, which keeps the entry barrier low. Congratulations to this good start!

LimeBike

The Californian bike sharer LimeBike just started in Berlin today. Just another bike sharer? No. LimeBike has also Pedelecs in their fleet. The electric bikes are more expensive than the regular bikes but work very well and are easy to ride. Welcome LimeBike!

Uber Acquires JUMP

The pioneer ride hailing company Uber has acquired the US-based electric bike sharing company JUMP as TechCrunsh reported and is about to launch in Berlin.

Bike Sharing Companies Retreat due to Vandalism

This is for sure not good news:

  • The Singapore-based bike sharer oBike pulls back most of their bikes from Munich after facing acts of vandalism as NGIN Mobility reports.
  • The Hong-Kong-based bike sharing company gobee.bike got hit even harder and had to retreat from Brussels and Lille (France) after launching in Europe in 2017 as The Guardian reports.

Berlin Bike Sharing in the News

Here’s another Berlin bike sharing comparison from the local tabloid newspaper BZ: https://www.bz-berlin.de/berlin/der-grosse-leihrad-test-welcher-anbieter-ist-der-beste

Bike Sharing Compared
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